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New Insurance Chief Goes Beyond Expectations

Jul 22, 2007

By Bruce Mohl, The Boston Globe

Jul. 23--When Nonnie S. Burnes was appointed insurance commissioner in February, the industry group pushing for auto insurance competition in Massachusetts thought all was lost.

The assumption was that Burnes, a Superior Court judge who knew nothing about the Byzantine world of auto insurance, would take a long time just to get up to speed. The fact that she was a Democrat and a liberal -- the opposite of her pro-competition predecessor -- made many insurance industry executives nervous.

James Harrington , executive director of the Massachusetts Insurance Federation, said former Governor Mitt Romney had championed auto insurance deregulation. By contrast, Governor Deval Patrick had said almost nothing about auto insurance on the campaign trail and Burnes, his pick for commissioner, had a blank slate.

"We viewed the incoming Patrick administration with some degree of trepidation," he said.

But Burnes last week shocked almost everyone. She not only mastered the minutiae of auto insurance regulation in a matter of months, but also set out to break a 30-year-old industry stalemate on deregulation. She said she planned to usher in "managed competition" next year, allowing automobile insurers to set their own rates under the close supervision of state regulators.

The decision, which will end Massachusetts's distinction as the only state where regulators set all auto insurance rates, will probably have a major impact on the wallets of the state's four million drivers.

Whether the result is positive will depend largely on Burnes, who has promised to protect urban drivers from the rate shock they suffered the last time competition was tried, in 1977. Burnes has offered few details about how she will do that; she plans to develop a regulatory framework for competition over the next three months.

While her predecessors agonized over the politics of auto insurance deregulation and were immobilized by worries of what could go wrong, Burnes tuned out the noise and approached the issue the same way she approached cases the past 10 years as a Superior Court judge.

"She's used to arbitrating disputes and this whole issue of auto insurance deregulation is a classic case of, 'He said, she said,' " said Representative Ronald Mariano , a Quincy Democrat who has been caught in the corporate crossfire many times as head of the Legislature's Financial Services Committee.

Monica Halas , who works at Greater Boston Legal Services and is a long time friend of the commissioner, said Burnes has always been a quick study. "She grasps things very quickly," Halas said. "She's someone who's not afraid of making a decision."

Patrick said he did not want someone steeped in the world of insurance as commissioner. "It was important to have an insurance commissioner who could bring a fresh set of eyes to the task at hand, who would look at the facts, not just politics, and did not come with a fixed position on critical issues," he said.

Burnes said the decision to introduce auto insurance competition was entirely a legal one. There were no marching orders from the governor -- she says she would not have taken the job if there were -- and no personal preference for either competition or state regulation.

"There was no ideological motivation," she said. "I don't have a business philosophy, really."

Burnes says she did what state law required . She says state law compelled her to let auto insurers set their own rates after she determined that competition was not "insufficient to assure that rates will not be excessive" or "detrimental to the solvency of insurers."

Burnes turned 65 in May, a milestone, she says, that entitles her to a 25 percent discount on her auto insurance under Massachusetts law. She may be of retirement age and a grandmother (her three children are all married with children ), but Burnes shows no signs of slowing down.

She met her husband of 44 years, Richard Burnes Jr., in college during the early 1960s. She was studying political science at Wellesley College and he was at Harvard University. They currently live on Beacon Hill and also have a home in Osterville. He is a founder and partner of Charles River Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Waltham.

They go skiing every year in British Columbia, but not at a resort. They go heliskiing, which is off-trail downhill skiing in which the participants are transported to the top of the mountain by helicopter .

The Burneses also like to sail racing boats. They recently participated in a race from Marblehead to Halifax in Canada and race from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda every other year. Burnes also likes to play tennis, garden, and read. Occasionally she baby-sits for her eight grandchildren.

Burnes serves on the board of trustees of Northeastern University. She graduated from the law school there in 1978 after taking more than 10 years off after college to raise her family.

After law school, she spent 19 years at the politically connected law firm of Hill & Barlow, where she was a partner along with Patrick. She handled a wide variety of cases, but is perhaps best known for representing parents who sued the state seeking better care for their mentally retarded children at state schools. The case, handled by US District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro, brought about sweeping changes in the handling of institutionalized residents.

Governor William F. Weld, another veteran of Hill & Barlow, nominated Burnes for a Superior Court judgeship in 1996. She was a judge for a decade, handling everything from murder cases to medical malpractice suits, but was ready for a change when she was asked to join Patrick's administration.

"She likes judging, but she wanted a different experience," said Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford, a friend and former colleague of Burnes.

Her new post is her first outside the legal profession, but it is not a big leap philosophically. "To be a great lawyer you have to have an attitude, the right attitude," she said in a May 25 commencement address at the Northeastern University School of Law. "You have to look for the opportunities to work for the public good wherever and however you choose to practice your profession."

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